There are more then 50 million active blogs and community sites like Digg and Slashdot are more popular then ever. But how do on-line communities compare to real-world communities? Is it even fair to compare real-world communities to on-line communities?
In the real world, people in a community typically interact based on geographical proximity. In the blogoshpere its easy for users to join new groups without geographical limitations, as the cost of travelling or joining a community is typically zero. This makes people of common interest to band together much more easily. But because the cost of joining a community is zero, it reduces the community spirit as people can participate without investing much of their time, their money or their reputation. Let’s look at a couple of examples to further explore these differences.
As Jacob Nielsen pointed out in a recent alert box article – user participation in on-line communities often follows a 90-9-1 rule. This means that typically 90% of on-line users are lurkers, 9% of users contribute from time to time while the rest of the 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions.
Now some of the participation inequality is driven by lower costs associated with joining an on-line community which enables not-so-motivated users to join a community…Some of it can be explained by inherent human nature. For example even physical communities display somewhat lop-sided participation characteristics. Internet, though, I think exacerbates this problem. Following are some of the reasons:
- No rewards for participation. Contributing to a community does not come naturally to most people unless there is a reward associated with contributing. The mechanisms for providing reward for participation are largely missing from the blogosphere at this point in time.
- The default substrate for interactions on the Internet is anonymity. It takes an extra effort to get them to drop the cloak of anonymity and express their opinions. This happens only when they feel really-strongly about the topic of discussion.
- Bad UI design that discourages user participation. One of the most annoying issues here is requiring users to register before they can leave a comment.
Spreading the word-of-mouth
In real-life communities, a good band or a good chef gets a fan following. Now as long as the band keeps producing good music or good dishes, those fans will spread the word about the band or the restaurant to their communities, friends and family. Over time this will result in the driving traffic to the band or to the restaurant.
In on-line communities, the situation is quite different. If a reader likes a particular new blog, he/she leaves a comment. This comment on the new blog is not very useful in driving traffic as it does not create any additional incoming links to the blog. Another option that a reader has is to put the new blog on their blogroll. This will create a new incoming link to the new blog. Now, as all bloggers know, getting added to blogroll of a popular blog is a big deal…It only happens if the new blogger is well known or is writing on the same subject as the reader or has established enough credibility in the space. This makes for a fairly high threshold for a new and unknown blogger to get on the blogroll. This lack of a good word-of-mouth propagation mechanism in blogosphere, makes it hard for a new blogger to build a successful blog despite creating great content.
What we need really is an effective word-on-mouth propagation system based on users reading and interacting with a blog. MyBlogLog (rumored to be in talks to be acquired by Yahoo!) did a great job of creating a community of readers. With MyBlogLog, readers could add other blogs that they visit to their profile and thereby create a bit of the word-of-mouth effect. Also the explicit identification of users with MyBlogLog visitor widget humanized the users. This helped in creating trust and more interactions in the community. We need more ideas like MyBlogLog that help community of readers connect, generate trust and share better with each other.
Overall I think on-line groups are indeed communities joining together based on a shared interest. Still we need to address some of the issues – propagating word of mouth, better networking for readers and incentivizing participation – to make these communities a lot more vibrant and participatory.